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Holly Hughes was the first of the NEA Four artists to complete her week-long residency at the New Museum this month, and the first of the artists I had a chance to interview as part of this series looking at those four today. She had an eventful week, with events taking place not only at the museum but also around the city. There were two panels that she participated in at the museum, Queer(ing) Performance Pedagogy and Expanded Forms of Reenactment in Queer Performance, and presentations by her students from the University of Michigan Interarts Program of the first act of her first play, The Well of Horniness, at both Dixon Place and CUNY. The CUNY presentation also found Hughes in conversation with the scholar Jill Dolan. And based on our conversation, she was also determined to go see some shows while she was in town. In other words, there’s no indication that Hughes has slowed down a bit since the late 1980s, and, at least from the outside, she seems to have built a sustainable life for herself as an artist.
Having started her career as a performance artist in the early 1980s, she was still relatively early in her career when the now infamous events took place at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in which Hughes and three other performance/theater artists, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Karen Finley, had their grants vetoed because their work dealt with gay subjects or, in Finley’s case, the sexual objectification of women.
Since that time, Hughes has become a tenured professor at the University of Michigan, where she helped to created the Interarts program, devoted to straddling the visual arts and theater, allowing student to work across an array of performance traditions. Two students who have come out of her program and are now making names for themselves are Erin Markey and Joseph Keckler.
Hughes has also maintained an artistic practice since the early 1980s, continuing to write, perform, and tour her performance pieces over the years. In 1996 she published a collection of her early writings as Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler, and a couple of years later, with David Roman, she published the Lamda Award-winning multi-artist anthology of performance texts, O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance. In 2010 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The morning after she arrived in New York for her residency, I sat down with her at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho to chat about her career and the changes that she’s seen in the arts landscape since the time she began working.
Unfortunately, even those of use who have done countless interviews still mess things up sometimes. The recording that I was doing of our conversation got interrupted about halfway through, corrupting the file up to that point. But, I was dutifully taking notes, so below I’ll quickly paraphrase a couple parts of our conversation before moving into an edited transcript.
One of the first things we spoke about was the challenge of having her undergraduate students present the first act of her first play, The Well of Horniness (the title is a play on the famous novel The Well of Loneliness.) Particularly challenging, she said, was trying to help her students understand camp. I thought that was funny, as so much of what has been pervasive in pop culture of the past decade or so has been a heavy use of irony, which is related but different from camp. She speculated that irony is more about allowing yourself to be at a distance from the subject, whereas camp is “a critique from the inside.” Hughes definitely incorporates elements of camp in many, if not all, of her shows, and so it was intriguing to hear her talk about the difficulty of finding ways to express the range of meanings and references that camp is calling on to a group of young students.
From there I moved into talking about her career in more general terms. I was curious if the outward appearance that she has crafted a sustainable life as an artist was true from the inside. She said she definitely appreciated having things like the health care that comes with her teaching position, particularly as she’s watched colleagues deal with serious and long-term ailments who knew that they would have a job when they came back. And she expressed concern that such care and job security were eroding for so many people in the US. On the flip side, she said that while she, by and large, enjoyed teaching, she felt like, when it was going badly in the classroom, “it’s like doing bad stand-up — they hate you and they will only continue to hate you!”
She also brought up the fact that while Ann Arbor (where the university she teaches at is located) has a rich intellectual life, she sometimes feels isolated artistically. Over the years there, she said she’s really come to understand “how much of my work happens in conversation with others” — not only through literal conversations with other artists, but through reviews of her work and seeing other people’s work across artistic media.
As we began to speak about community, I asked about the communities that helped her at the beginning of her career. I knew that the WOW Café Theater had been crucial to helping her start her career as a performer but I didn’t know that the primary reason she came to New York from Michigan (where she grew up) was in order to attend the New York Feminist Art Institute (NYFAI). Founded in 1979, Hughes described the group who ran the school as artists “who were trying to find the next step in their art practice” and decided to move into teaching. Unfortunately the NYFAI didn’t last very long and Hughes only participated in classes for a couple of years. A year or two later she found WOW Café Theater: “I’m not sure I would be alive if I hadn’t found WOW.” She said that during that period of her life she was “haunted by the sense that I was crazy,” and being among the other women at WOW helped her to make community with other artists and lesbians. Founded by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who formed the company Split Britches, WOW continues to operate today. According to Hughes: “The genius of [WOW] was Peggy and Lois, and their commitment to teaching a new generation.”
From there we moved into a discussion of the NEA debacle. I started by asking how, if at all, that experience changed her artistic practice. She told me, “On a personal level, it was traumatizing. My lived experience of it was in opposition to other people’s narrative.” One such narrative was that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
She spoke about coming under attack from other artists during that time, including other queer artists. And she spoke of feeling like at that moment there was a kind of “pack behavior — turning on a wounded member of the pack.” She spoke about the fact that the while the arts and queer communities generally responded in a positive and supportive way to controversy around the pivotal Artists Space show, Witnessing: Against Our Vanishing, she felt that people reacted very differently to her and the other NEA Four artists. It “devolved” quickly, she said, into fights over whose politics were more radical or conversations that often ended with people pitting the work of artists against each other. Of those years, she said, “It took all of my attention.”
From there the recording picks back up:
Alexis Clements: I’m assuming that the four of you had almost no relationship with one another before this happened, beyond maybe a general awareness of one or two of each others’ work.
Holly Hughes: Yeah, I knew and followed Karen’s work, and we had met. The other person I knew was Tim. I had also seen one show of John’s.
AC: And you have each taken very different paths since. Which must make it even more complicated to be treated by history as symbols, and related symbols.
HH: Other than being called “The NEA Four,” we were often called, “Karen Finley and the Three Homosexuals” — like this really bad band. I think there were all sorts of complicated reasons and implications of Karen being named, with us being reduced just to “the homosexuals.” I mean, Karen would get reduced to “The Chocolate-Smeared Woman.” We all got reduced to something. And you know, we’ve all made work about it, in one way or another. I made a piece a little over ten years ago called Preaching to the Perverted, about going to the Supreme Court, which was this really whacky piece of immersive environmental theater. It really felt that way, because you had to get tickets in advance, you had to wait in line, people were calling me to see if I could get them into the show. It was a really bizarre performance, and talking about it as a performance allowed me a way in to the experience that was really great.
A couple of years ago, The Moth asked me to do a series of main stage shows and they wanted the NEA story, and I was sort of like, “Noooo!” [laughs.] But it was a good experience to work on it.
AC: That leads to one question I wanted to ask you. With the residency at the New Museum, it seems like the curator, Travis Chamberlain, is trying to balance that tension between the way in which each of you has become a historic symbol of sorts, with the reality that each of you is doing your own, highly individual work. Do you feel like most of the time when people are engaging with you as an artist that’s their primary reference point?
HH: I feel like it’s always going to be part of my biography, and that’s okay. Of course I would like to have something else offset that or complicate that. But actually, it was a big moment. And not just that moment. I think there are reverberations that people are maybe not even aware of — like the fact that that moment became an excuse, basically, for all individual funding for artists to go away. That’s had such a huge impact on cultural institutions large and small, and artists. And also audiences. Because everything gets way more expensive without funding.
AC: One thing that I wanted to briefly touch on is the larger context for the so-called “Culture Wars,” of which the experience you, Miller, Fleck, and Finley had with the NEA was one major aspect. Lately I’ve heard a couple of people reference that time period but leave out the fact that the Culture Wars were directly tied to the AIDS epidemic in the US, the Sex Wars, and neoconservatism. It’s strange to me that in many ways the history around that moment has already started to disappear.
HH: It has and, I think, everybody has lost. In a lot of contexts making provocative and controversial work has become almost de facto unfundable. And I think it’s part of the larger story of the ongoing attack on public funding for everything. I do think — and of course I would think this because it’s still within me — it has had a huge cultural impact. And I’d love to think that there was going to be some sort of push to restore that [individual artist] funding, but I think not.
AC: Lately I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich’s book An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, and as I was preparing for these NEA Four pieces, I couldn’t help but start to think about the ways in which the Culture Wars are tied up in the experience of trauma, not just for the artists like yourself who were made into public scapegoats, but also for that arts in a more general sense. It feels like there’s still a deep defensiveness within the arts; a larger insecurity about where the arts fit and what they mean to US society. I see this specifically in things like public testimonies before Congress begging for the NEA budget to be kept in tact, or minutely increased. By and large, in the testimonies I’ve read, they aren’t arguing that art is intrinsically valuable, they’re often saying things like, art because education, or art because therapy, or art because economic activity and increased real estate values (i.e. gentrification). There’s a sheepishness around asserting that art has a value in and of itself. On a personal level, have you experienced the reverberations of the Culture Wars, not just in terms of funding, but also in the larger context for art?
HH: I think about what the application process was like for the NEA. You had to bring your best game, but I compare it to the MAP Fund grants — and I’ve been lucky to get some MAP grants, and I’ve also been an evaluator — but that grant is a two-tier system. First you do it, and then you redo it. And some of the questions they ask, I want to tear my hair out and say, didn’t you just ask this? Whereas the NEA was much more straightforward. I mean, there’s no perfect way to do grants, where you can be as fair as possible and not have subjectivity enter into it and spread the money around, but I think that the NEA tried to keep it as simple and clean as possible.
Part of the money went to sending site visitors to come and see your work, so it wasn’t about having the money to get really good documentation of the work. Somebody had to sit through the whole damn thing and then have a conversation with you afterwards. The grant process for all of these awards today feels way more complicated and forces you to have a relationship with the cultural institution. Who does this keep out? What counts as a cultural institution? And I think that, probably what’s controversial now, twenty years later, is much more around immigration or Muslim identity, for instance.
Even the Guggenheim [Fellowship] application is not arduous as Creative Capital. And it sort of looks to me like the “Academy” when I spend a lot of time answering what feels like the same question raised slightly differently and I struggle to translate my — I mean, on one level, grow up, that’s what the world is, but I think the complications of those applications has something to do with cultural anxiety.
AC: One thing that really strikes me too about the grant landscape now, as someone who has applied for a number of grants myself, is that the numbers have just exploded, even in the decade that I’ve been applying. I’ll get letters back with all the usual b.s. about there being such a great pool of applicants, but now they’ll also tell you how many people applied — like almost 3,000 people applied for 40 grants in one program or 1,000 people applied for very small playwriting prize that comes with almost no money. Which leads me to think it’s not just that the funding structure has changed pretty dramatically and that the arts are still in a kind of crisis mentality, but also that, ironically, there’s been a massive explosion in the number of people who want to be seen as artists.
HH: Right. And most states that used to give money don’t anymore. I mean, in Michigan it was a tiny little bit of money, but it’s gone. New York, Illinois—there are a few places that still give money, but a lot of places don’t.
So, I think the space for artists to take risks and maybe flop — I don’t know what those spaces are. I mean, I look at the Wooster Group — and I don’t like all the work they do but I respect them—and they have their space. And Liz LeCompte is at a point in her career where she doesn’t allow the New York Times to review her work. And, you know, bully for her. She’s able to do that because she’s at a certain point in her career, but also because she owns her space and she knows she can fill it without hoping that the New York Times might send a reviewer.
AC: Another thing that came up in Ann Cvetkovich’s book that made me think of you and the other artists, is a tiny quote about “storytelling as a mode of survival and resistance.” You bring so much humor and contemporary cultural reference into your work, and so much of yourself. Do you still feel like personal testimonies in performance are important and useful?
HH: I think that, you know, maybe there’s not as much solo performance as there was at an earlier point, but, in fact, it’s morphed into something else. Which is stuff like The Moth, nd people making stuff for YouTube. Chicago seems to have this huge storytelling community and it’s really a different framework for this stuff. I think it’s really American — our whole cultural interest in the individual story. Coming out of feminism and other social justice movements, individual stories resonate with larger landscapes, or maybe many landscapes.
As a reader, I sometimes wonder about this boom in interest in memoirs and, maybe, a sort of shrinking audience for serious fiction. When I read serious fiction, or literary fiction — whatever you want to call it, although it’s beautifully written there’s less urgency behind the plot, it feels maybe conventional or referential to other plots. Whereas in memoir you have the you-can’t-make-this-up shit.
AC: What’s your experience of audience been like over the years? Do you feel like there is a core part of the audiences that come to see your work who now have some relationship to your perspective and your life? Of course, audiences always change and morph over time, and you hope they’ll grow, but do you feel like you have established a core that knows your work, in a long-term sense?
HH: I think there are. As you said, you always hope that you’re going to get a different audience as well, but yeah, I think there’s people that I’m enough on the same page with. Although I think what’s most exciting to me in my work is when I’m skating on thin ice and I’m not really sure what I’m doing.
My friend Claire Croft says, I work on things because I’m trying to work out something for myself. And someone who I really, really adore and I think is a really great writer about performance, C. Carr, said she had one person she wrote for — a friend of hers who would give her honest feedback. It was a way that she could chart her work — this is the star where I’m headed, I know there are other stars, but I’m really going to pay attention to this one.
I think one of the most common questions people hear in critiques, whether they’re in school or doing a staged reading and getting feedback is, “Who is the audience for this?” And I think that’s a really silencing question. I think sometimes it’s useful, but I think it’s lazy as critique and I think also, if you’re female or you’re from any stigmatized group, that question comes across as, your audience is not important enough.
AC: It’s so interesting that you say that about the “who is your audience” question. It is incredibly common in public talkbacks about a new work, particularly performance works. It does ultimately come down to putting a box around the work.
HH: Right. And I just think it often means, you’re not talking to a general enough audience. I mean, who’s interested in something that is general, actually? But, you’re not mainstream enough.
AC: Or, even the reverse — if you’re not going to be general, then you’re only allowed to speak to this group that has these specific characteristics, and you have to speak in very particular way that is more about perception than reality.